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Austin Turns To Hotels And The Sobering Center To House Homeless COVID-19 Patients

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
The Austin Sobering Center was opened in 2018 to serve as an alternative to jails or emergency rooms. Officials in Austin and Travis County now say they could repurpose the facility to house homeless COVID-19 patients.

City and county officials have set aside hotel rooms and the Austin Sobering Center to quarantine or isolate homeless Austinites who have or present symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to amend the Sobering Center's contract to allow it to function as a quarantine site. The city has set aside $720,000 to bolster the center's $1.1-million budget in the event that it's used for quarantining.

Since 2018, the Sobering Center has helped divert people who are intoxicated from emergency rooms or jails. Now the city has asked that the joint program with the county be used to stage self-isolation and quarantine areas for people experiencing homelessness. The county voted Tuesday to boost the center's budget to $1.8 million a year to support that request.

With the approval, the Sobering Center will immediately divert its operations toward the quarantine effort. 

Following social distancing guidelines, the center would house no more than 15 people who are at high risk of COVID-19, but have tested negative.

The city has finalized or is finalizing agreements to increase shelter capacity as well, by using hotel rooms to quarantine or isolate homeless people who have COVID-19 symptoms.

Last week, Austin Public Health helped Salvation Army Austin move one of its clients who had tested positive for COVID-19 to a hotel room. That client was sharing a living space with 19 other people. The city says it helped move those people to separate hotel rooms, too.

In a memo dated Friday, the City of Austin said it finalized an agreement to lease the Crown Plaza Hotel at I-35 and Highway 290, which has 292 rooms. That hotel will serve as an isolation area for people who have tested positive or are symptomatic for the disease.

The memo says the city could also use rooms at the Rodeway Inn, after it closes the deal it began negotiating in November. The hotel has 87 rooms, but it is expected to take four weeks to retrofit them after the deal is finalized April 17.

The city is also working to find other hotel rooms to quarantine people who may have been exposed to the virus.

The strategy comes as the city weighs how to best address the population considered most at-risk: those above the age of 60.

Austin Public Health announced a plan Monday to provide a 100-bed temporary shelter for people staying at nursing homes with COVID-19 who do not need to be hospitalized.

Roughly half of the COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County are people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Service providers for Austin's homeless have largely had to shut down operations in the downtown area, which has crippled the capacity of providers who provide them with food, clothing and housing assistance. Those relying on volunteers have had to shutter or restrict services as a result of the city and county's shelter-in-place orders. Facilities like the Salvation Army's downtown shelter and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless have seen staff taper off, as well.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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This story has been updated.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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